Beadwork and Border Lines: Kahnawà:ke Women Craftworkers and the Assertion of Rotinonshiónni Border Crossing Rights in the Late Nineteenth Century

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date



In early October of 1898 forty-four women from the Kanien’kehá:ka community of Kahnawà:ke wrote to the U.S. Congress expressing concern about a threat to their economic livelihood and asserting Rotinonhsiónni border-crossing rights (Figures 1 and 2, note 1). Identifying themselves as those “whose livelihood is the making and selling of beadwork and Indian novelties,” the women noted that until recently they had crossed the international border into the United States free from any duties on the “wares of [their] manufacture.” The beadworkers expressed concern that duties newly-imposed by Congress had placed them in “poorer circumstances.” Stressing the difficult situation in which they found themselves, they petitioned the members of Congress to restore their pre-existing “privilege” by relieving them of the duties now levied on the craftwork they sold in the United States. The names of the petitioners followed, listed in two neat columns of twentytwo names each, all in Kanien’kéhah, all handwritten in a single script, and each marked with the “x” of its owner. Their simple two-page petition opens a window into several poorly-understood dimensions of life in this community at the turn of the twentieth century. These include the nature of the local economy and its links to a wider regional and international system, the transnational dimension of Kahnawà:ke’s economic life, the economic activities and political activism of women in the community, and the persistence of traditional political authority on the reserve a decade after it had been officially abolished by federal Indian policy. And, perhaps most importantly, the action of the forty-four women may represent the first step in modern times of Rotinonhsiónni people asserting their border-crossing rights based on the Jay Treaty of 1794, an issue that would become a touchstone of Rotinonhsiónni political activism in the 1920s and 1930s and which continues to reverberate in Rotinonhsiónni communities today.


Iroquoia, the journal of the Conference on Iroquois Research.